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Professor Paula Banerjee – Women in Indian Borderlands

Profile Paula Banerjee LE Mag October 2018

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Women in Indian Borderlands by Professor Paula Banerjee.
Interview with Mark Ulyseas (first published in Live Encounters Magazine February 2013).
Published by SAGE Publications

Professor Paula Banerjee, best known for her work on women in borderlands and women and forced migration, is the President of International Association For Studies in Forced Migration. She is a faculty member of the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Calcutta, one of the largest and oldest Universities in South Asia. She is also the Director of the avant guard South Asian think tank called Calcutta Research Group. Winner of many awards and accolades, in 2013 she was awarded the Distinguished Fulbright SIR Award and a Visiting Professorship to SUNY, Oswego. Her recent publications include Statelessness in South Asia (2016), Unstable Populations, Anxious States (edited 2013), Women in Indian Borderlands (edited, 2012) and Borders, Histories, Existences: Gender and Beyond (2010) which has been acclaimed as a best seller. She is the editor of Refugee Watch and the editorial board member of a number of international journals such as Oxford Journal of Refugees. She has written and edited over 15 books and monographs and has published widely in international journals such as Journal of Borderland Studies, Canadian Journal of Women’s Studies, Forced Migration Review and Journal of International Studies. Acknowledged as a radical and prolific speaker she has delivered lectures in all five continents. She has been a visiting professor in a number of universities including Helsinki University (Finland), Yunnan University (China) University of Paris 7 (France) and New School, New York (USA) and others.  www.amazon.com


Professor Paula Banerjee Women in Indian BorderlandsWhy did you choose this subject?

I have been working on the theme of borders for some time now.  A few years back I published another book entitled Borders, Histories, Existences: Gender and Beyond.  This book became instrumental in popularizing border studies among my students.  They found out that in recent years a few studies have appeared on the borderlands but hardly any on the myriad roles that women play here.  On verifying this we from Calcutta Research Group decided to undertake a project on this issue.  We approached ICSSR and they approved of a project that led to a series of papers on women in Indian borderlands that was ultimately published in this volume.

What do you hope to achieve with the publication of this book?

In the case of India, military security dominates over human security in the border region. The book concerns itself with women living in these borderlands and discusses how they negotiate their differences with a state, albeit democratic, which denies space to difference based on either ethnicity or gender. Women living in the borders are the subject of the series of research papers presented in this volume not merely because they belong to these perilous territories or the borders but also form them. Further, as transmitters of cultural value women construct differences that shape the future of the nation and the border. But in fact most of our traditional efforts to make geopolitical regions more secure are nothing but attempts to privilege a masculine definition of security that result in only feminine insecurities. In addressing questions of security the insecurities of women always remain behind.  In publishing this volume we wanted to foreground feminine insecurities in the border that ultimately leads to human insecurity. By foregrounding this we wanted our readers to think of how to envisage a more peaceful world.

Kindly share with us a detailed overview of your book?

There is hardly any literature on women’s role in the borderland in India and this series of articles are meant to address that lacunae. The present state system in South Asia, in particular the state system of the sub-continent, is a result largely of the partitions in the eastern and western parts of the erstwhile united India, giving birth to three states – India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The borders dividing these countries are markers of past bitter history, current separate, distinct, and independent existence, and the sign of the territorial integrity of these states. The bitterness of the past, the lack of mutual confidence at present, the security concerns of all these states, at the same time the existence of thousand and one linkages make the South Asian borders unique. They are the lines of hatred, disunity, informal connections and voluminous informal trade, securitised and militarized lines, heavy para-military presence, communal discord, humanitarian crisis, human rights abuses, and enormous suspicion, yet informal cooperation.

Borders become the site where this contest over inclusion and exclusion is played out. They demarcate the inside from the outside, sovereignty from anarchy and. the singular from pluralistic space. They construct what Nira Yuval-Davis has termed “the space of agency, the mode of participation in which we act as citizens in the multilayered polities to which we belong.”   Hence borders are not merely lines. They are zones that situate the gray areas where the jurisdiction of one state ends and the other begins.  They are the common ground of two or more states that share them and also interpret its meanings in very different ways to its citizens in their national narratives, history writing and collective spatialized memories.  In the case of India security concerns overwhelm all other equally legitimate concerns and values. Military security dominates over human security in the border region. These borders, or more precisely borderlands, are also peopled by groups that have linkages to both sides of the borders.  Yet in their efforts to emphasize the national identity, state sovereignty demands a severance of those linkages that “encourages difference” leading to a conscious exclusion of the recalcitrant from the inner circles of privilege. As a result of this, States often forget that borders are not only lines to be guarded, they are also lines of humanitarian management, because borders are not lines but borderlands – that is to say these are areas where people live, pursue economic activities, and lead civilian lives attuned to the realities of the borders. Human security in the borderlands would mean first security of the civilian population along the borderlines which hardly ever happens in this sub-continent.

This project concerns itself with women living in these borderlands that Edward Said calls “the perilous territory of not-belonging,” and discusses how they negotiate their differences with a state, albeit democratic, which denies space to difference based on either ethnicity or gender. Women living in the borders are the subject of this series of articles not merely because they belong to these perilous territories or the borders but also form them. Nira Yuval-Davis once stated that women have a dualistic relationship with the state:

On the one hand women are always included, at least to some extent, in the general body of citizens of the state and its social, political and legal policies; on the other – there is always, at least to a certain extent, a separate body of legislation which relates to them specifically as women.(Yuval-Davis in Gender and Nation, p. 27)

In the case of the borderlands of India such dualistic nature of women’s engagements with the national and ethnic collectivities leads to further discrimination against them.  This becomes problematic because social attitudes over time get transformed into legal provisions.  Therefore, women have to live not only under draconian national laws, by virtue of their location, but also suffer other discriminatory traditions and practices by virtue of their gender. How do they negotiate such multiple borders given borders propensity to violence is the question that we ask?

The universalistic nature of citizenship that emanates from traditional liberal and social democratic discourses is extremely deceptive as it conceals the exclusion of women from national identities of citizenship. Thus the ideological constructions of the state are weighted against women who remain in the borders of democracy. Yet in moments of conflict at times they assume centrality. This is because in areas of civil conflict men withdraw from civic life for compulsions of war and self-defense.  In such a situation the public sphere retreats into the private and women form the civil societies.  They assume roles that are completely new to them and confront and negotiate with the massive power of the state machinery in their everyday lives.  Further, as transmitters of cultural value women construct differences that shape the future of the nation and the border. But in fact most of our traditional efforts to make geopolitical regions more secure are nothing but attempts to privilege a masculine definition of security that result in only feminine insecurities. Yet in addressing questions of security the insecurities of women always remain in the back of beyond.  In this series of articles we deal with insecurities of women posited on the borderlands and analyse how they deal with them.  A further question that we pose is how globalization impacts on all of this.  This collection of articles include two on the Bengal/Bangladesh border, two on Kashmir/Pakistan border and two others on Northeast/Myanmar border.

The first paper by Paula Banerjee’s is entitled Bengal Borderland Revisited: Chronicles from Nadia, Murshidabad and Malda. Banerjee in this paper addressed a vexed issue that she has not previously dealt with.  She looked at the notion of flows and how that impacted on notions of security. With every election and every census borders become an issue.  The concern remains over undocumented migrants and whether their arrival threatens the nation form?  She also addressed notions of increasing violence in the borders, fencing as a marker of such violence, women and the evolution of their relationship to the border etc. She returned to an intensive study of the Bengal-Bangladesh borderlands in the three districts of Nadia, Murshidabad and Malda.  Instead of meta-narratives she came back to the question of micro politics and questioned whether present day flows have any relation to past histories or not.  Her argument is that borders have historically evolved as gendered entity and thereby these have become spaces of extraordinary control and violence.

In the next paper, entitled Narrated Time: Constructed Space – Remembering the Communal Violence of 1950 in Hooghly, Anasua Basu Ray Choudhury argued that borders are not just lines in the landscape they actively shape the societies and cultures that they enclose. Borders denote a spatial dimension of social relationships that are continually being configured and, in this process, the meaning of borders is produced, reconstructed, strengthened or weakened. The notion of borders in today’s world is a testimony to the importance of territoriality with the creation of the ‘other’. The imagery of borders has become a popular metaphor in the study of socio-spatial development in post-Partition societies. In this study, Basu Ray Choudhury unraveled the stories of three Muslim women of Hooghly, an otherwise calm and quiet place during the turbulent years of partition. Anusua’s study captured the lives and experiences of the people who lived through the ‘partitioned time’[1], of the way in which the events accompanying the partition were constructed in their minds, and the identities or uncertainties that partition created or re-enforced. The main purpose of the study was to enquire on how women negotiated borders – borders of sect, community, patriarchy, and of conflicts not only in their own land but also in an alien land away from their homeland.

In the next section there are two narratives from Kashmir. The two papers are entitled Women’s Voices on Borders by Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal and Borderlands and Borderlines: Renegotiating Boundaries through a Gender Lens in Jammu and Kashmir by Sumona Das Gupta. Anuradha in her paper highlighted women as the major victims of warfare. One of the most obvious examples of specific victimhood of women in armed conflict, she argued, is their vulnerability to sexual assault and rape. Rape and sexual abuse is nothing new in the history of warfare. Marauding armies have through different periods of history, around the globe, taken advantage of women in the course of military conquests. What is new is the role of media. Instant reporting from the field has resulted in rapid sensitisation of public opinion, greatly reducing the time lapse between the perpetration of such tragedies and their responses to them. However, in the case of borders, lack of access and no reportage make the consequent sensitisation elusive. She argued that, the victimisation started when the borders were carved out in 1947-48, when people living in fairly peaceful areas suddenly found themselves on the fringes of nowhere, close to places that had become simply lines drawn on a map for everybody else in South Asia. The brunt was borne not simply by women living on the borders; the prolonged trauma is also shared by women living away from the borders but affected in many ways by the sudden carving of new boundaries, dislocation and its multiple consequences. For majority population of India and Pakistan, the traumatic memories of partition have become historical narratives but in J&K because of the disputed nature of its borders, these memories are a festering sore, which continues to bleed and makes people to suffer in the form of displacements, dispossession on account of border skirmishes between the hostile neighbours. She claimed that, weird border contours on the maps of J&K have intensified the militarisation of borders on both sides thus adding to the insecurity among the border population in general and women in particular. A continuum of tragedy and victimisation has followed till date due to constant hostility and wars that have adversely affected the border people in many ways.

At the very outset Sumona Dasgupta identified the term borders not just as physical boundaries represented by de facto and de jure cartographic lines that separate the sovereign writ of one state from another, but also as other faultlines generated or accentuated by a conflict. Acknowledging borders as lines that separate and delimit spaces, in her paper she went beyond ‘cartographic anxieties’ and physical landscapes to ‘non cartographic anxieties’ -borders that are etched on mindscapes – lines that separate ‘us’ from ‘them.’ In doing so she recognized that there can be an overlap between these two sets of anxieties and that where they intersect faultlines come into even sharper relief. In her research she portrayed how these border-lines are mediated by gender. Gender is used not just as a descriptive category but as an analytical tool that is as much about men and masculinity as it is about women and femininity. A gender perspective consequently explores how men and women’s roles are constructed in society and gender sensitive conflict analysis will look at ways in which gender roles, gender identities, gender ideologies and gendered power structures may be altered in the course of a protracted conflict.

The next section is composed of two articles from the Northeast India-Myanmar border. Chitra Ahanthem’s paper entiled Sanitized Society and Dangerous interlopers: Women of a Border Town: Moreh focused exclusively on the plight of women, in the border town of Moreh. In her study through the narratives of women living in the border town of Moreh on the Indo-Myanmar border she intended to examine the contradiction, paradox, difference and conflict of power and domination in contemporary global capitalism and the nation state, especially as manifested in local level practices. The everyday life stories of these women reflect not only their identity as women but how these realities are shaped by their location near a porous international border-town where the border not only divides the lives of “women” but plays a crucial role in joining them in their labouring lives as women continue to cross borders takes on multiple roles as traders/ sex workers/ household workers etc.  Women not only negotiate with the “borders” through crossing as a “labouring subject” but also negotiate at a socio-cultural level on a day to day basis through shifting identities produced by “borders”. This study examined the relationship between women who stay in Moreh during daytime, crossing over from the Myanmar border as traders/sex workers and women of Moreh. The lives of women in Moreh indicate the multiple realities faced by women living at a border area with a history of protracted conflict.

Sahana Basavapatna in her paper entitled Sanitized Society and Dangerous interlopers: Burmese Migration into Mizoram through the Legal Lens analysed from a legal perspective the experiences of Burmese women who in migrating across international borders problematised democracy, identity and citizenship. She explored the theme from two perspectives— first how the legal frame and secondly how cultural, political ties of Mizroram itself affect the Burmese migrants in India. A host of factors led to the migration of the people from the Chin state to Mizoram. The Indo- Burma border thus becomes extremely significant for continuing migration and cross border terrorism. Sahana focussed on the experiences of women crossing these borders and the response of both the state and the Central governments. It is through the legal frame that she sought to analyse how women who have been forced to migrate negotiate the complex social, political and economic web of relationships of being branded as a foreigner and in many cases illegal. The law being rooted in the patriarchal mindset is inadequate in perceiving and responding to women’s needs.

This series of articles is exceptional in many ways.  It deals with an issue that is seldom dealt with in Indian social science.  There is currently only one book on the gendered dimension of borderlands in South Asia.  Therefore this in many ways is an exceptional topic.  Yet borderlands are an extremely vexed issue in this day of securitization and cross border flows of all kinds.  And the role that women plays in this flows is extremely pertinent.  Apart from that this series of articles also confirms that violence is a constitutive element of borderlands when analyzed from a gender perspective. All of these articles deal with violence in their own respective ways. Apart from that these articles go beyond the trope of “coping” and “agents”.  It makes the theoretical claim that all coping mechanisms are agentive.  So in terms of feminist theory this series of articles mark a departure. It also deals with a number of contentious issues such as aids in the borderland, migrant trade, migrant labour, affects of globalization on b orders.  Above all it celebrates what it means to be a woman in the border and a survivor, notwithstanding whether the state recognizes her as an agent or merely coping for survival.


© Mark Ulyseas   

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